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Which audio format is the best balance between quality and convenience for consumers?
Old 20th June 2015
  #1
Gear Head
 

Which audio format is the best balance between quality and convenience for consumers?

Hi!

I'm trying to decide on the audio format for the downloads I'll be offering.

I'm producing short audio dramas with music and sfx which I plan to sell as digital downloads on my site. They range from 10-40mins in length.

I want to ensure high quality audio, but I also want to make it convenient for the consumer.

Up to now, I was expecting to offer 48k/24bit wav, but I've become undecided for 2 reasons:

1. Is wav convenient for consumers? I've been researching it and I'm getting the impression that apple product users typically have to go through the hassle of converting them.

2. A 30min production tallies over 500MB. I know space is cheaper nowadays, but is that a turnoff to consumers. I know if I was downloading an album, I'd want the highest format possible, even if it meant 2GB.


I was originally adamant I would offer lossless, but now I'm wondering what consumers would actually prefer. I've been reading quite a few comments pushing FLAC, but I'm not sure how familiar consumers are with FLAC.

So what do you guys think? What would you offer your consumers or fans these days?
Old 20th June 2015
  #2
Flac 24 will be the best choice.it can conserve the full information of the 48 24 wav, with less size.
Old 20th June 2015
  #3
Lives for gear
 

24/48 is commonly called "pro standard" for a very good reason. All video apps work well with this format and if you harbor any allusions pursuant to your work being useable for video production you might well remember the visual industry needs.
Old 20th June 2015
  #4
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lame pseudonym's Avatar
 

Well, regarding what you're going to ship, you've got to look at what consumers have been preferring, which I guess is something like iTunes or Pandora or I don't know what this week.

If you want to step it up a notch from that, great. If you're the only one way out there you might face resistance.
Old 20th June 2015
  #5
Gear Guru
 
Brent Hahn's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by M.L. View Post
I'm producing short audio dramas with music and sfx
I want to ensure high quality audio, but I also want to make it convenient for the consumer.
It's radio drama -- the writing and acting are the main things. But even if it's just mp3's it'll sound way better than it would over the radio. If it were me, I'd mix it with the dynamics reined in enough that the listener doesn't get pulled away from the story to fiddle with the volume, and I'd do 192k mp3's.
Old 20th June 2015
  #6
270182
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Brent Hahn View Post
It's radio drama -- the writing and acting are the main things. But even if it's just mp3's it'll sound way better than it would over the radio. If it were me, I'd mix it with the dynamics reined in enough that the listener doesn't get pulled away from the story to fiddle with the volume, and I'd do 192k mp3's.
Yep. Most radio content today IS MP3.
Old 20th June 2015
  #7
For best fidelity combined with somewhat reduced size, FLAC is an excellent format -- but support for it in the mainstream has lagged a bit. Probably the biggest single hit is that there no way to add support for it to iTunes (which despite disdain from folks like me continues to be very widely used); Apple insists that for lossless you must use their Apple Lossless format, which is similar to FLAC, although proprietary, of course (and apparently not quite as good at getting file size down or producing absolutely identical files in all cases -- but for most purposes, about the same). https://xiph.org/flac/documentation_tasks.html

For radio drama, I think you could start getting a very satisfying quality level at 192 kbps (and could even dip to 160 kbps -- don't forget SoundClould's streams are only 128 kbps and yet it is very widely used).

iTunes, of course, uses 256 kbps files for their sales -- and when Apple closes down Beats Music (mostly but not all 320 kbps according to recent reports), they will reportedly be moving 'back' to 256 kbps streams (despite the fact that most of their competitors offer 320 kbps), presumably so as not to further impact iTunes sales by offering higher quality subscription streams than they offer for download sales. It is possible for some listeners listening to some material to differentiate 256 from 320 or lossless -- although it's probably tough in most cases.

Since you're pretty vitally concerned with this decision and the relative quality levels, I would suggest getting yourself an ABX test utility -- on Windows you can use Foobar with its ABX comparator 'plug-in' (Download foobar2000 and optional components) and on the Mac, ABXTester (https://xiph.org/flac/documentation_tasks.html) -- and testing some of your files (and maybe some commercial music files for further exploration and comparison) at a variety of settings, seeing how reliably you can tell the difference between them.

(I like to use the LAME encoder for mp3s, myself. There are a number of quality settings; the default settings offer a good trade-off although I like to up the processing quality all the way... I'm not concerned about how long the conversion process takes. There ARE some settings that can negatively impact some content, so if you feel like tinkering, keep that in mind. Obviously compare the original file with the rip of it; I've seen people try to compare different commercially available versions of the same song only to find that they are actually different dynamic levels or lengths, essentially meaning different masterings and, of course, consequently 'meaningless' ABX results.)

One thing I've learned from my own ABX testing and watching others: we often overestimate (and sometimes underestimate) our ability to suss out the differences. For the record, it appears that for most folks, most of the time, 320 kbps is largely indistinguishable from full lossless in double blind (ABX) testing.


By the way -- there is the option of offering multiple formats, though that can be a bit more hassle to sell multiple versions on your own (unless you simply bundle all the desired formats in a ZIP file and sell that as a single download) -- and few sales/individual 'store' services besides BandCamp seem to offer it. Bandcamp has a pretty good implementation, offering both FLAC and Apple Lossless, as well as 320kbps mp3, VBR and some lower rate formats for people with bandwidth limitations. (Purchasers can download other formats after the fact by going to the DL links in the email they received after purchase from BC.) One issue that might dampen your enthusiasm: Bandcamp does not allow snippets or previews. Anything you put there will be fully listenable, although at the same, lower fi, 128 kbps rate that Soundcloud uses for their preview streams.)

Last edited by theblue1; 20th June 2015 at 05:16 PM..
Old 20th June 2015
  #8
Gear Head
 

Hmm... decisions.. decisions...

Thanks very much everyone for your input. I have to agree that the majority of consumers certainly seem more concerned about convenience than sound quality, so I suppose I feel less dirty offering an mp3.

I don't know anything about apple products so I'm happy to learn about those formats, and I'm shocked soundcloud is only 128! But there you go, I never noticed..!

Flac is sounding like the option to go for if I do decide to go the lossless route. I guess I'll just have to go with the old fashion method of exporting both and comparing (thanks for the foobar tip).

I did consider the .zip or a download format option, probably the ideal option if I can work it out.

Thanks very much! It's really, really appreciated.
Old 20th June 2015
  #9
Quote:
Originally Posted by M.L. View Post
Hmm... decisions.. decisions...

Thanks very much everyone for your input. I have to agree that the majority of consumers certainly seem more concerned about convenience than sound quality, so I suppose I feel less dirty offering an mp3.

I don't know anything about apple products so I'm happy to learn about those formats, and I'm shocked soundcloud is only 128! But there you go, I never noticed..!

Flac is sounding like the option to go for if I do decide to go the lossless route. I guess I'll just have to go with the old fashion method of exporting both and comparing (thanks for the foobar tip).

I did consider the .zip or a download format option, probably the ideal option if I can work it out.

Thanks very much! It's really, really appreciated.
Zip won't reduce the size of sound files, of course -- but if you release multiple formats, it might save you a bunch of effort to bundle up all your files in a single zip for customer download. Then you only have to service one file from your site, making things a lot more straightforward.

BTW, if you're going to do everything DIY, including sales, you might look at a (free) Wordpress plugin called Easy Digital Downloads (https://wordpress.org/plugins/easy-digital-downloads/) -- it's nice because it allows you to sell automated downloads directly from a Wordpress site and handles trade-off to PayPal (there are other payment gateway options as well), unlike the 3rd party store option (iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, etc) which handle everything for you but keep as much as 35%. By cutting out the 3rd party store and using a PayPal 'Micropayments' account, you can cut your sale processing costs down to just PP Micropayment's 5% + $.05 (regular PayPal is 2.9% plus $0.30 USD).

OK... I think that's all I know.


Well, one more: while I do tend to notice 128's when I hear them (at least if I'm familiar with higher fidelity versions), I spend almost all my listening time listening to 320 kbps music streams -- and have for some years now. I find them very listenable.
Old 16th September 2015
  #10
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Robo's Avatar
320 kbps mp3 encoded with Lame custom highest quality settings (already well recommended by theblue1). FLAC is awesome but the benefit in audio quality to your target market will probably be negligible compared to the benefit in smaller file sizes.
Old 16th September 2015
  #11
@ theblue1

Apple actually *streams* at 320, if not 256? That's pretty scary, as it's very easy for anyone to just record the streams to files in another application.

OP: I second the 192 suggestion.
Old 16th September 2015
  #12
Lives for gear
Quote:
Originally Posted by Aural Endeavors View Post
@ theblue1

Apple actually *streams* at 320, if not 256? That's pretty scary, as it's very easy for anyone to just record the streams to files in another application.

OP: I second the 192 suggestion.
That horse left the barn long ago. If you release your music online in any format, you have to assume that it's 100% available to piracy. The only hope is to compete on convenience and loyalty to the artist.
Old 16th September 2015
  #13
Quote:
Originally Posted by Aural Endeavors View Post
@ theblue1

Apple actually *streams* at 320, if not 256? That's pretty scary, as it's very easy for anyone to just record the streams to files in another application.

OP: I second the 192 suggestion.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Philter View Post
That horse left the barn long ago. If you release your music online in any format, you have to assume that it's 100% available to piracy. The only hope is to compete on convenience and loyalty to the artist.
Well, we'd like to hope that modern subscription stream systems are easier and more engaging to use than finding one's desired track in pirate channels -- but stream ripping and getting everything labeled properly (auto-recognition-naming only really works well with audio from CD format) is going to be a pain. So, if you're already in a pirate frame of mind, you're more likely to just cut to the chase and get your illicit content ready-to-go from pirate channels.

And if you're paying for streaming, you're going to have first quality files at a good bitrate. Most premium subscription tiers are 320 Vorbis; Apple Music's is 256 kbps AAC, but they claim that's sufficient based on their testing -- and it's what they've been selling on iTunes for much of that service's history after moving up from 128's a number of years ago; no doubt there are 'fans' of the different formats but general thinking seems to bet that Vorbis and mp4/AAC offer a marginal improvement in quality at some bitrates over conventional mp3s -- but the mp3 format has no provision for digital rights management, anyway. [Free streaming via Spotify free maxes out at a listenable but not particularly hi fi 160 kbps.]


Now, going a little farther along with the rip-from-streams strategy, stream-rippers I'm familiar with do a digital signal interception from the device's sound system -- so the lossy signal coming in from the stream service is in the form of a wav or AIFF file by the time the stream-ripper sees it and one then can decide on a storage format from lossless wav or FLAC on down into heavily lossy formats/bitrates.

If the aspiring copyright scofflaw uses lossless for a transcription format, he should pretty much be able to capture the 320 or 256 at its original sonic quality -- but the file will be anything from 2-1/2 to 4-1/2 times bigger! If he tries capturing at the same rate as the incoming stream, he will experience sonic degradation from successive lossy compression sessions that will very likely be surprisingly noticeable. Using even lesser bitrates produces even more degraded sound -- double lossy processing tends to produce a sort of sonic 'garbling' -- producing the sort of 'underwater' distortion normally associated only with very low bitrate single pass lossy processing.


So, if someone is paying for a stream service, he's going to have it in his home and mobile, anyway, and, if it's a good service it should be much more convenient and enjoyable than having to deal with scouring pirate sources for desired new material.

And, for those putting stolen material into those pirate channels, I strongly suspect that the preferred source will remain lossless files ripped from CD or other lossless source, since that will deliver the best quality when compressed to lossy format.
Old 16th September 2015
  #14
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G-Sun's Avatar
Anything above 256kbps VBR mp3 is snaikoil as far as I understand.
Old 16th September 2015
  #15
Lives for gear
I think you should make the tough business decision and use the widely accepted mp3 format with the highest bitrate you can reasonably use.

To me, this is purely a business decision... and your content should not suffer THAT much from the original waveform to the point where you don't even like it. If it does... then you did something wrong in the mix anyway.

Bend your product to the accepted formats. Don't bend the accepted formats to your product. They're the accepted format for a reason. People want small files.

Last edited by CPhoenix; 18th September 2015 at 06:14 PM..
Old 17th September 2015
  #16
Lives for gear
If you look at sites like Addictech.com - Dealing the purest quality electronic music. they offer something like a choice between FLAC, and 320 CBR kbps MP3, and 256 kbps VBR MP3 if I remember correctly. I think BandCamp is the same way.

The only problem with 24-bit FLAC is that it doesn't play on some portable media players that DO play 16-bit FLAC. And 16-bit FLAC is already CD-quality, so you could go with that and have reduced file sizes without losing CD-quality.

As far as the popularity of FLAC, it's gone up over the years enough to be supported by most freeware media players such as VLC and Foobar2000 and others.
If people don't know how to wrangle up a player for their downloaded media, they got no business being on the internet.
If more people are exposed to the modern formats, the more they will catch on. And that's a good thing. MP3 is old school these days.
Better alternatives exist, so why aren't we using them now? (Rhetorical question).
Old 17th September 2015
  #17
Winrar will reduce the size of wav files.. 96 khz 24 bit wav filea can be reduced by a great deal using Winrar.
Old 17th September 2015
  #18
96khz - 192khz 24bit ALAC is what the new apple streaming service uses as well as the old format that iTunes is using.
iTunes is still restricted to 16bit 44khz
The others are using 96khz - 192khz 24bit FLAC as well as 44khz 16bit MP3.

The consumers will start preferring the bigger numbers no matter what they mean. These are easy to run on laptops and desktops but ipods and the like need to be replaced with the new tech.
Old 17th September 2015
  #19
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ksandvik's Avatar
 

FLAC is good but a total mystery for most consumers. Go with AAC 256.
Old 17th September 2015
  #20
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comfortablynick's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jax Pok View Post
The consumers will start preferring the bigger numbers no matter what they mean.
I sure hope not. Fortunately Apple has been making strides toward encouraging better mastering, which will have much more of an effect on the sound quality than increasing the bitrate.

I really hope they don't start increasing the size of the files and charging more for placebo. Moving from 128 kbps to 256 kbps was a good move, but there probably isn't a need to go any further than that IMO.

Nick
Old 17th September 2015
  #21
Lives for gear
AAC might be alright like Ksandvik said. I would try to do the top bitrate for AAC. But at least it's better than MP3 in terms of sound quality most of the time, although even OPUS is getting better than AAC. But most people don't know about OPUS. At least if you do AAC most portable players can handle it. But I see nothing wrong with encouraging people towards lossless audio. Once they learn how to play FLAC, they will be glad.
Old 17th September 2015
  #22
Lives for gear
 

Also from my music/lover consumer perspective..
FLAC and MP3 as an alternative option.. F*ck Apple

Michal
Old 18th September 2015
  #23
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almaelectronix's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by msmucr View Post
FLAC and MP3
+1
Old 19th September 2015
  #24
Gear Nut
 

FLAC with the highest compression setting. For people using Itunes or other apple stuff that won't play FLAC, there is ALAC instead. I think we need to kill these crappy mp3's as they're really letting us all down and spoiling our hard work. There's not much need for them these days. It's not the 90s anymore...

Customers might think they want mp3's, because, they're ignorant at the end of day. It's up to us lot to change their minds

Couldn't you offer more than one format to choose from anyway? If that's possible and you'd prefer to do it that way, you could offer Wave, FLAC, ALAC and "high" bitrate mp3 files so they can pick. I would also put a simple explanation explaining why mp3 is a crap choice, but it's there for those with strict data caps or whatever..

Edit: Just seen the date on the thread. Dude has probably chosen by now I guess...?
Old 19th September 2015
  #25
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jax Pok View Post
96khz - 192khz 24bit ALAC is what the new apple streaming service uses as well as the old format that iTunes is using.
iTunes is still restricted to 16bit 44khz
The others are using 96khz - 192khz 24bit FLAC as well as 44khz 16bit MP3.

The consumers will start preferring the bigger numbers no matter what they mean. These are easy to run on laptops and desktops but ipods and the like need to be replaced with the new tech.
Not sure precisely what you're talking about but if you're talking about Apple Music (Apple's new streaming service), their on-demand streams use lossy compression, specifically 256 kbps AAC (derived from 16 bit/44.1 kHz audio). Many of the other services, like Spotify, use 320 kbps Ogg Vorbis.

Some people will argue for the superiority of AAC at a given bitrate, others for Vorbis [Ogg is the file container format; Vorbis the audio] at the same bitrate. And some claim that 256 kbps AAC is as good quality as 320 Vorbis but others scoff at that.

iTunes store also uses 256 kbps AAC.

Some specialty stores like the Pono store do sell files as big as 24 bit 192 kHz files. But the highest quality that I'm aware of being streamed on demand is from Tidal (choice of lossless FLAC or ALAC at 16/44.1) and Deezer (not sure of the format from Deezer but I strongly suspect it's one or the other). Lossless audio at 16/44.1 requires a base b/w of at least 1411 kbps and, obviously, double and quadruple sample rates go up from there. And, of course the move to 24 bits increases uncompressed audio file size by 50%.

Here's more from CNET:

Spotify vs. Apple Music: Is there a difference in sound quality?
Old 19th September 2015
  #26
Lives for gear
yeah this is an old thread from June, I wish I had noticed that. Annoying.
Old 19th September 2015
  #27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nystagmus View Post
yeah this is an old thread from June, I wish I had noticed that. Annoying.
The only reason I found my way back here was I was on my 'you've been quoted' page and noticed an unread quote and then I saw that and I thought... What?!?
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